Planet Earth

Praying Mantises are Expert Acrobats in Mid-Air

D-briefBy Carl EngelkingMar 5, 2015 6:56 PM

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Praying mantises, with their twiggy limbs and long bodies, lack the look of agility, but we all know looks are often deceiving. These lanky insects, as wingless juveniles, leap from twig to twig faster than the blink of a human eye, and they stick their landing with the precision and grace of Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci. Researchers, intrigued by mantises’ aerial mastery, filmed hundreds of leaps by these insects and discovered the secret behind their athleticism, and it’s far from simple.

Leap and a Prayer

Using high-speed video, researchers recorded 58 young mantises leaping onto a 4-milimeter rod positioned two body lengths away. In all, they recorded 381 leaps by their cadre of mantises, revealing a consistent pattern in every attempt. Each mantis sways their head from side to side — likely eyeing up their landing. Then, they lurch their bodies backwards and curl their abdomens up. Next, they push off the ledge with their legs and launch into their air. Then this is where praying mantis skills really shine. While in mid-air, the insects independently rotate three different parts of their body — the abdomen, front legs and hind legs — in a choreographed, sequential order. Here's a great video of those leaps, courtesy of New Scientist: http://youtu.be/JhLBqrl3n9M The rotations all happen within a tenth of a second, keeping the mantis’ body on target and level. To see what happens when a mantis’ movement is restricted, researchers super-glued a mantis's abdomen segments together and filmed it jumping again. It wasn’t pretty. Since they couldn’t rotate their abdomens in mid-air, mantises routinely missed their target, often slamming their heads into the rod and falling off — proving that every movement a mantis makes in the air needs to work in harmony for a successful leap. Researchers published the findings Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Out of Sync

Most insects lose all control when they’re airborne, or deploy an external method of control. Jumping spiders, for example, shoot a dragline from their abdomen for stability. Moving forward, researchers want to monitor mantises’ brain activity to understand the role it plays in their unique leaps. And why study acrobatic mantises? Researchers believe their unique jumping technique could serve as a model to design tiny, leaping robots, which are still quite clumsy. Praying mantises, as we’re learning, are not only notable for their appearance and brutal mating ritual, but also for their aerial acrobatics.

Photo credit: Florian Andronache/Shutterstock

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